The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) revealed today that excavation work is being carried out in Ramat Beit Shemesh on the remains of a spectacular church decorated with spectacular mosaic floors and Greek inscriptions. The archaeologists working at the site have determined that the church was some 1,500 years old.
A mosaic inscription was found dedicating the site to an unnamed “glorious martyr.” An additional inscription was found mentioning a donation received from Emperor Tiberius II, the Eastern Roman Emperor from 574 to 582.
The archaeological excavation by the IAA was financed by the Israel Ministry of Construction and Housing, in preparation for the expansion of the city of Beit Shemesh, in the new neighborhood of Neve Shamir. The excavation was made possible by the special efforts of thousands of youths from around Israel.
A new exhibition, under the title of “The Glorious Martyr” is opening this week at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, in which selected finds from the excavation will be presented. There will also be a conference when lectures will be presented about the excavations and the finds.
Who was the “Glorious Martyr” immortalized by the Greek inscription, in whose memory this magnificent church was built and later enlarged under the patronage of the Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II himself? This mystery has puzzled archaeologists of the IAA for the past three years.
The Ministry of Construction and Housing has invested approximately [US] $19 million in the excavations, conservation and development of archaeological parks as part of the construction of the new neighborhood, of which approximately [US] $1.9 million alone were allocated for this excavation.
The walls of the church were decorated with colorful frescoes and lofty pillars crowned with impressive capitals, some of which archaeologists think may have been imported.
The excavations exposed an architectural complex spread over 1.5 dunams [less than half an acre].
Excavations in the center of the site revealed a church built according to a basilica plan—an elongated structure lined with two rows of columns that divided the internal space into three sections—a central nave flanked by two halls. A spacious courtyard (atrium) was found just outside the church’s entrance.
The primary stage of the church’s construction occurred during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century [AD] (527–565). Later, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine, an exquisite side chapel was added. A fascinating inscription found intact in the courtyard dedicated the church to a “Glorious Martyr.”
According to Benjamin Storchan, director of excavation on behalf of the IAA, “the martyr’s identity is not known, but the exceptional opulence of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that this person was an important figure. Only a few churches in Israel have been discovered with fully intact crypts. The crypt served as an underground burial chamber that apparently housed the remains (relics) of the martyr. The crypt was accessed via parallel staircases—one leading down into the chamber, the other leading back up into the prayer hall. This enabled large groups of Christian pilgrims to visit the place. The crypt itself was once lined with marble slabs, giving it an impressive appearance.”
According to Storchan, the site’s importance is confirmed by the expansion carried out under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine ([AD] 574-582). A Greek inscription discovered at the site states that the expansion of the church was completed with his financial support. “Numerous written sources attest to imperial funding for churches in Israel, however, little is known from archaeological evidence such as dedicatory inscriptions like the one found in Beit Shemesh,” says Storchan. “Imperial involvement in the building’s expansion is also evoked by the image of a large eagle with outspread wings, the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, which appears in one of the mosaics.”
The archaeological excavation of the site was mostly carried out by thousands of teenagers, who came to dig as part of the IAA’s educational vision—aiming to connect Israeli youth to their heritage. The teens came to dig as part of their national service and IDF [Israel Defense Forces] preparation programs, or through their high schools, as part of Israeli studies. Large groups also participated at this dig, alongside teenagers from the vicinity of Beit Shemesh who came for a summer job.
Excavations revealed thousands of objects and what appears to be the most complete collection of Byzantine glass windows and lamps ever found so far at a single site in Israel. Additionally, a unique baptismal font in the shape of a cross was found in one of the rooms of the church, made of a type of calcite stone that forms in stalactite caves.
Amanda Weiss, director–general of the Bible Lands Museum, said, “The vision of the Bible Lands Museum is to be a cultural and educational institution connecting its visitors to the roots of our past. We are proud of our collaboration with the IAA bringing to light these important new finds for the thousands of visitors from all faiths ages and nationalities, inviting them to appreciate the rich cultural heritage of the Land of Israel.”
Date published: 02/11/2019
Feature image: Site of the church excavation in Beit Shemesh. Edgar Asher, Ashernet
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